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Letter to a Christian Nation

by Sam Harris

Alfred A. Knoph, New York, Copyright 2006

97 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

Sam Harris, the author of the best seller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, has written his second book. At less than 100 pages long (and printed on small pages, no less), this tiny book packs a powerful punch. Indeed this describes a letter more than a book, but what a letter! I read it in less than two hours so if you want a short read during a plane trip, short vacation, or while waiting at the DMV, then this book will meet the requirements.

Nor should anyone dismiss this book for its conciseness. I liken this book to Thomas Paine's Age of Reason which also came in a condensed form but had a powerful impact on the minds of early Americans. I hope Harris' book has even half as much influence as Paine's book (but I doubt it because I just can't see many Christians reading a book that condemns their religion).

In every page, I kept saying to myself, "yes, indeed, yup, yes, YES!"

Although addressed to American Christians, this book applies to any religion, especially Islam, which after all, bears many similarities to Christianity. The letter goes on, relentlessly, describing the problems of religion and how it spreads ignorance, violence and the terrifying concept of self-fulling prophesies that could end the world through superstitious stupidity. This especially holds importance since the religious right-wing has held our government hostage ever since the Supreme Court appointed Bush as the "president."

Harris uses analogy in a powerful way, substituting the Christian god for Poseidon, and putting the Christian into an Islamic's shoes, for example. He provides insights about embryonic stem cell research, creationism/evolution, abortion, diseases due to scientific ignorance in favor of prayer, and he shows the absurd logical conclusions that come from religious faith. If an honest Christian actually reads this book, he or she could not possibly avoid seeing the problems of religion. But then, how many Christians actually practice self-honesty?

Sadly, unlike early America, the United States has very few freethinkers nowadays, but Sam Harris has shown himself as an erudite and expressive freethinker. If he keeps with this infamy, he threatens me to put him in my favored freethinkers list.

A few quotes from the book:

Those with the power to elect our president and congressmen-- and many who themselves get elected-- believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah's ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the earth, and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God.

Among developed nations, America stands alone in these convictions. Our country now appears, as at no other time in her history, like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant. Anyone who cares about the fate of civilization would do well to recognize that the combination of great power and great stupidity is simply terrifying, even to one's friends.

Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half or the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.

The truth is, you know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims. Isn't it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves? Isn't it obvious that anyone who thinks that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe has not read the book critically? Isn't it obvious that the doctrine of Islam represents a near-perfect barrier to honest inquiry? Yes, these things are obvious. Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.

We might also wonder, in passing, which is more moral: helping people purely out of concern for their suffering, or helping them because you think the creator of the universe will reward you for it?

Of course, the Church's position on abortion takes no more notice of the details of biology than it does of the reality of human suffering. It has been estimated that 50 percent of all human conceptions end in spontaneous abortion, usually without a woman even realizing that she was pregnant. In fact, 20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgment: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.

It is time that Christians like yourself stop pretending that a rational rejection of your faith entails the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma.

Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.

All complex life on earth has developed from simpler life-forms over billions of years. This is a fact that no longer admits of intelligent dispute. If you doubt that human beings evolved from prior species, you may as well doubt that the sun is a star.

There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell. . . An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse-- and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists.

How many more architects and engineers must hit the wall at four hundred miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics?

The idea that Islam is a "peaceful religion hijacked by extremists" is a fantasy, and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge.

The truth is, some of your most cherished beliefs are as embarrassing as those that sent the last slave ship sailing to America as late as 1859 (the same year that Darwin published The Origin of Species).

Some have speculated that religion itself may have played an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere. If this is true, we can say that religion has served an important purpose. This does not suggest, however, that it serves an important purpose now.


To obtain this book, click below:

Letter to a Christian Nation

Other books by Sam Harris:

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (hardback), (paperback)